Benefits of Exercise That Aren’t Weight Loss

This morning as I prepared to head out for my run I started thinking about how every few months friends of mine discover exercise and put on a large show of posting every day about how hard they’re exercising and how far they have to go to their goal – be it weight loss, a certain distance run or biked or rowed, or something else. They charge hard for a few weeks or months and then I never hear about it again, until the next time they rediscover exercise.

Meanwhile I’ve been back here quietly exercising every day all along. There’s not much excitement or glory in it so I almost never post on social media about my workouts. How boring would that be? “Did my workout again today, just like yesterday and the day before and the day before.” And yet what I’m doing is what I hear people say they’d like to emulate – getting regular exercise. Why is it so hard to maintain year after year?

One of my theories is that people focus too hard on the weight-loss benefits of exercise, and that is not sustainable. There are basically two ways it can go when your only reason for exercising is weight loss:

  1. You reach your goal, and stop exercising. Not right away, of course, but over time skipping workouts seems fine because, hey, I reached my goal I should get to relax now! And that’s a slippery slope that leads to getting out of the habit and one day realizing you don’t exercise anymore and haven’t in months or years.
  2. Exercising doesn’t result in weight loss, so you give it up. If you started exercising, but didn’t change your diet, this is a very likely scenario. Losing weight is about 80% intake and maybe 20% exercise. If all you did was start running on the elliptical 20 minutes a day, but only lost 5 pounds before it stopped coming off, you’d probably stop bothering because it wasn’t giving you the results you were looking for.

In order to keep at it over time, one needs to come to an appreciation of the benefits of exercise apart from weight loss. That’s how I get my body out of bed on a Sunday and run 4 miles even when I don’t particularly want to. I’m long past exercising to lose weight – at my age I’m exercising to keep my weight stable and for the other benefits, such as:

My own personal top reason is pain management – my body hurts less when I exercise regularly. I consider exercise to be my regular talisman against the aches and pains of aging. Like brushing my teeth morning and night, it’s just something I need to get done so I can get on with my day. The other benefits are a nice bonus. What are your reasons for exercising?

Brain Games

I’ve noticed something interesting going on in my brain. It has to do with the scale. You guys know I have a fraught relationship with the scale. I try to get on it as little as possible. In fact, I haven’t been on it since November. I am trying to learn to maintain and manage my weight by eating healthy and exercising. I don’t want to spend my whole life on a perpetual cycle of weight gain followed by fast loss through a program. I want to eat naturally, not shakes and pre-packaged foods I buy from a weight-loss system.

What’s weird is that I’ve been doing this since 2003, and I still feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I still feel like I have no idea how to lose weight. I have lots of friends who know exactly what you should do to lose weight and will happily expound at length on The Answer for Weight Loss. It is, of course, whatever worked for them. The further I get with this whole thing the less I know for sure.

Anyway, the brain thing.

I try not to weigh myself too often, usually because I just can’t bear it. I don’t want to be on the constant merry-go-round of hope, fear, disappointment, elation…it’s too much. Just too much. I just want to live a quiet, maintained life with my weight. So I do my exercise – 40-60 minutes of vigorous, breathing-hard, sweating, red-faced, hard exercise 5-6 days a week. And I watch my intake – lots of fruits and veggies, portions that aren’t too big, the occasional indulgence (but not too much). And I don’t get on the scale until my brain freaks out.

That’s what happens. I go for a few months and then my brain freaks out and convinces me that I’m DOING IT ALL WRONG and I’m clearly enjoying food too much, my eating is out of control, I must have gained tons of weight enjoying myself and I AM A FAILURE. My brain completely freaks out. I get depressed because I suck at this and I’m gaining weight and failing and all my exercise is for nothing because I must have gained 10 pounds since the last time I got on the scale.

And my brain starts making me notice things I hadn’t before, which are a sure sign that I’ve gained a ton of weight. Suddenly my hips are present to me in a way they weren’t before. My belly looks bloated. My legs feel sluggish and large. Clearly I’ve failed and am gaining weight and I need to get control of all this before I’m back up to my highest weight ever. I moan about how bad I’ve been and  how much weight I must have gained and, always, my husband says, “You look the same to me. Are you sure you’ve gained weight, or are you just guessing?”

Darling. I’m just guessing. I can’t face the scale so I don’t, I just guess that things are bad because my brain is telling me I’m a failure.

So after a few days or weeks of this I decide it’s time to Take Things In Hand. I need to get on the scale, get a handle on just how bad things have become, and start working on losing whatever huge amount of weight I’ve gained since I’ve been enjoying food and out of control. So this morning, after weeks of my brain convincing me I’d gained 10-20 pounds over the holidays I gave up and got on the scale so I could quantify the problem in order to begin working on it.

Up a half pound since the last time I weighed in November. That’s within regular fluctuation range. I am maintaining, my weight is extremely stable. Everything is going fine, I haven’t gained anything over the holidays, my system is working. It’s my brain that’s disordered.

I need a better system for brain management.

How To Eat More Vegetables

I know the title of this post seems a bit silly, but it’s not, and I’m going to tell you why.

Humans descended from hunter-gatherers. This means that “eating whatever’s available” is literally encoded in our DNA. That is how humans feed themselves – they eat what they find in their environment, or what is placed in front of them, or whatever seems easiest to acquire. That’s a survival strategy when food is scarce and every calorie requires effort to achieve. It’s not so helpful when food is plentiful and food that is actively bad for humans is easier to get than healthy food.

So if you know you need to eat more veggies, but it’s not something that’s already present in your environment, you might very well wonder…how do I do that? I absolutely sympathize with that – I personally need to eat more veggies than most people both to maintain my weight loss, and because I need the roughage for certain, um, digestive tract reasons. So every day, I need to figure out how to get veggies into my diet, and I have a couple of fallback plans to make it easier.

First things first: Shopping

You can’t eat what you don’t have, obviously. So you need to make sure that veggies are on your grocery list every time you go to the grocery store. Or have them delivered, whatever. But not just any veggies. I will illustrate with an anecdote.

When I first started maintaining my 200 pound loss, I dutifully went to the grocery store and bought 2 heads of broccoli every time, because I needed to have lots of veggies in my diet. Unfortunately, I don’t actually like broccoli enough to eat it twice a week every week for the rest of my life. So several of those heads of broccoli got ignored, and a few of them got eaten grudgingly, which felt like my new maintenance lifestyle was a punishment. That’s counterproductive.

You need to figure out what veggies you like to eat, and you need to figure out the fastest, most convenient way to prepare them, because that’s what you’ll be doing most often. Unless you’re a gourmet cook, which several of my friends are. The rest of us just want to be able to make something quickly and get on with our day.

Figure out what veggies you like, then put them on your grocery list and buy them, so you always have them on hand.

Preparing on Their Own

Over the years I’ve figured out that I like shishito peppers roasted for about 12 minutes in the oven with some cooking spray and salt. I like quick salads I can make in 5 minutes or less. I like microwaving a spaghetti squash for about 9 minutes then pouring tomato-based spaghetti sauce over it. I like baking Yukon Gold potatoes several at a time then having them in the fridge all week to grab and re-heat in the microwave in 90 seconds (Yes! Potatoes are a vegetable, just use with caution). I like roasting a head of cauliflower in the oven for 14 minutes with some cooking spray and seasonings – actually this roasting method works with most types of veggies!

Those are the kinds of veggies I buy every time I go to the grocery store. Things I know I can make in minutes.

I have a stand-by, too. If nothing else sounds good, we’re having salad with dinner. And making a salad is a super-quick proposition, which is why it’s a stand by. Here’s how I make my ration of roughage most nights, and you’ll note this requires absolutely no washing or chopping:

-Throw some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and mustard powder in a large bowl and whisk it together with a fork. (My presonal recipe also calls for soy sauce and a forkful of garlic from a jar of pre-crushed garlic).

-Throw in the greens, which are already washed, chopped, and ready to go. My local store carries these Organic Girl greens and they are perfect for this use – enough greens for 2 or 3 servings of salad.

-Throw in a handful of little tomatoes, no chopping needed.

-Toss on a handful of shredded carrots. No shredding required.

-If I’m feeling it, shake on a little crumbled feta cheese.

-Optional, go hog-wild and slice an avocado in half and cube half of it onto the salad, put the other half in a ziploc for tomorrow night’s salad.

Mix it all together with tongs and be sure to distribute the dressing all around and you have salad. It takes so very little time to make, this is what I eat most nights to be sure I’ve gotten veggies in for the day.

Bulking Up Existing Recipes

Another way to eat more veggies is to add them to your main meal or entree in an existing recipe. If you’re having pasta, it’s super easy to chop up some extra veggies and add them to your sauce, or go primavera and just have a bunch of veggies roasted in oil on top of your spaghetti. Adjust your proportions so you’re actually eating more veggies than pasta and that’s a very healthy and filling meal!

If you’re making soup (either from scratch or a can) adding extra veggies is a great idea. Veggie soup can also be tasty on it’s own with the right spicing, and if you take your immersion blender and smooth it out you’ll be surprised by how tasty and luxurious that can be.

Any kind of casserole, pasta dish, or soup, in my opinion, can be bulked up (as well as reducing the caloric density) by adding vegetables.

Finding New Recipes

Consider making a veggie-based main. I’ve invested in a couple of vegetarian cookbooks, not because I’m vegetarian, but because I need to eat a lot of veggies, and they have great ideas for entrees based on veggies. In fact, I’m happy to forego meat at any meal when I find a tasty veg-based recipe. One of my favorites is stuffed eggplants, which I never would have thought of on my own – I found it in a book on vegetarian dishes of the world. There’s lots of them out there and they have new, interesting recipes you might not have considered before.

In Restaurants

Most restaurants will allow you to substitute some sort of cooked veggies for the starch that normally comes with your meal – mashed potatoes, fries, rice, whatever it is, you can probably get veggies instead. Do that. (Be careful of restaurant salads though – they often come covered in nuts, cheese, croutons, and dried fruits, and may total out calorically higher than things like hamburgers or tacos if you’re not careful!)

Check out vegetarian entree options, too. Often times these can be deep fried or otherwise bathed in cheese, oil, or cream, and might be something you should avoid, but sometimes you find something surprising and delightful. I’ve gotten beautiful towers of perfectly roasted veggies with surprising sauces just by perusing the vegetarian options first.

So those are the ways I can think of to eat more veggies. How do you get more veggies into your diet? Tell me in the comments!

Limiting Damage from Dysfunctional Coping Mechanisms

If you’re like me you might have been indulging in some dysfunctional coping mechanisms that last few weeks. You know what I’m talking about, right? Eating, drinking, impulse buying, avoiding exercise…

Well, those are mine. The bad news is that with the holidays fully upon us the emotional situations that bring on the need to cope are likely to only intensify. Your family is not going to stop arguing about the current US political situation just because it’s December and the Christmas spirit should dominate. They’re going to get worse, and we’re going to want to hide in a cave, eat chocolate candy, and buy sparkly things on Amazon while sipping a fruity cocktail and blasting the new Metallica album in our earbuds.

Or maybe that’s just me.

This post isn’t about changing all that and causing you to suddenly switch to a perfect food and exercise program this week. It’s about limiting the damage, because sometimes that’s the best we can do. So I’m only going to talk about limiting the damage, focusing on the dysfunctional coping mechanisms I myself am familiar with (for example, if smoking is your problem I have no idea how that feels so I wouldn’t even try to offer any suggestions but check out WebMD, maybe something they have is useful).

Eating Too Much

Yep, big one. Mine and everyone else’s. Eating releases dopamine. In short – eating comforts mammals. Evolutionarily, that’s an advantage. Real-world modern today, not so much. My best advice is to swap out the less-supportive foods you might want to binge on, with something that will do less damage. Remember, this article is just about limiting the damage. So, if your go-to is chips, switch to popcorn. Try some Skinny Pop, it’s tasty and only about 40 calories per cup. You can eat a LOT of it without causing too much damage. Or make some popcorn at home, light on the butter and salt.

If sweet is your thing, go to your grocery store and grab a bag or two of grapes, green or red or black, doesn’t matter. Wash those up and eat the whole bag if you want. Same thing with baby carrots. We can all admit that we’re not eating for the gourmet experience right now, we’re shoveling food in because it feels good, so look for foods you can eat in bulk with good texture: Broccoli spears, carrots, grapes, berries, slice up some apples. Honestly, if you just need to be putting something in your mouth, you can eat all the fruits and veggies you want without causing too much damage.

And dump some of the junk. If it’s not around you can’t use it/eat it.

Drinking Too Much

First of all, I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking. I’m not your mom, and this ain’t AA. If drinking a bit too much is what you need to do to get by for a while, let’s just limit the damage and sort out the rest later.

Light beer. Ugh, I know, it’s not as awesome as Guinness or local craft brews. But let’s be honest, are you really drinking for the nuanced flavor profile and deep complexity, or are you drinking because things look shitty and you need a little fuzziness around the edges to cope? If you’re drinking to cope, make it something less damaging. If beer is your thing, pick up some light beer, just to get through for a while.

Wine. It’s gonna be a better option than sugary cocktails, hands down. Dryer varieties have fewer calories, so skip the dessert wines (again, we’re not drinking for the flavor, let’s all admit it).

On the Rocks. Get right down to business. A shot of vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila, or whatever your spirit may be, is going to have about 65 calories per serving (shot). If taking the edge off is what’s important, have a straight up shot or two and call it good.

Mixers. Stick to low-cal mixers like diet soda or diet tonic, light cranberry juice, light juices in general (they exist, you just have to know to look for them), lemon or lime juice, or club soda.

Dilute. I’ve been adding water to my wine to reduce the caloric load and also slow myself down. It’s perfectly legitimate to dilute your drink with sparkling water or club soda. It’s also helped me avoid several headaches.

Water round. Drink non-alcoholic beverages every other time. Get yourself some flavored sparkling waters so you can feel fancy while you’re doing it. This will also help you to avoid hangovers so that you can continue to be a productive member of what’s left of society.

Shopping/Impulse Buying

I’ve been buying too much stuff – it’s so easy when you can stay home in your sweats and bring the world to your doorstep. Again – I’m suggesting ways to limit the damage.

Coupons. Check out Honey, a browser extension that scours the internet, then automatically applies the best coupon code at checkout wherever you are shopping. It’s not going to stop you from shopping, but it will apply discounts to limit the damage to your bank account.

Try Pinterest. The thing about Pinterest is that you can curate your own little world of things you like without actually purchasing them. You still have them, there, in your virtual world, if you want to look at them. I’m not sure how useful this would be, but it’s worth a shot.

Return policies. Most companies allow you to return stuff once you’ve received it. If you find yourself drowning in things you’ve bought recently and maybe shouldn’t have, it’s not too late once you’ve received it, although you may take a hit on the postage.

Donate. You can set the amount (make it something you can afford), and you still get the high of shopping for something and purchasing it.

Delay. I’ve got tons of shopping carts floating out there on the internet with things I put in and then waited a day to see if I really wanted them. I like putting stuff in online shopping carts. It feels like buying! It’s fun! Look at all this pretty stuff! And then I wait a day to see if I really, really want the thing more than I want money. Usually not.

Not Exercising

It’s weird that not exercising is a coping mechanism, but it can feel really pointless to expend the energy to improve our bodies when it seems like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. And of course, that’s when it will often do the most good. I personally have been having trouble mustering the energy to do the kinds of workouts I know I should be doing right now – HIIT, strength training, metabolic conditioning. Those are hard workouts that seem like so much effort.  So what I’ve been doing is pulling up my favorite trainer’s YouTube channel and just browsing until something that seems doable comes up. Right now punching things seems good, so I’ve been doing kickboxing workouts almost exclusively the last week. Punching feels good right now, especially when I envision certain faces in front of my fist. Cathartic.

Maybe what you need right now is some yoga, to center yourself and focus on breathing for a bit.

Maybe what you need is to go for a walk and get some sunshine. Maybe you don’t have any equipment but moving your body sounds like a good idea. Maybe burning really hard is how you need to clear your head.

And hey – feel free to zombie-walk your way through a workout. Nothing says you can’t just do the parts you like. Nothing says you have to be enthusiastic. Sometimes I start a video thinking, “Eh, I’m not feeling it, but I’ll humor her and if it gets too much I’ll just half-ass it.” And I do. But sometimes I start to enjoy the feeling of moving and I build some enthusiasm as I go.

In Conclusion…

You don’t have to start a diet and exercise program right now, dear lord no you don’t! But you can limit the damage of some of the dysfunctional coping mechanisms you may be indulging in, until you’re ready to take more drastic measures. So here I am, in the same boat, doing my best to limit the damage along with you. I don’t think anything here is rocket science, I think that sometimes it helps to have a list of things presented, though, so you can pick one or two to focus on. Feel free to just pick one or two. It’s enough.

Also, a Facebook break does wonders for the mind. Give it some thought. A day or a few days can really help with the sense of helplessness and catastrophe some of us are feeling.

Aging Skin Does Weird Stuff

I feel like I start every other post with, “Gosh it’s been a long time since my last post.” Sorry, I’ve been battling mental rebellions over this whole “needing to be vigilant every day” thing that my life is.

Since my last post I’ve done the thing I said I was doing – eating sensibly, not starving myself, exercising for about an hour 5-6 days a week, not getting on the scale. But then a couple of weeks ago something happened that really rattled me. I noticed a new angry red stretch mark on my belly just above my belt lipectomy scar. Then a few days after that I noticed a bunch more on my abdomen above and to the left of my belly button (I have some old white ones there already from when I was ~400 pounds). Then a couple of days ago I noticed some on the other side that mirrored those ones above my belly button.

I freaked out. I worried that my negligence of the scale meant that my weight had somehow ballooned up without me realizing it into previously unknown highs, so high I was getting new stretch marks. That didn’t even make any sense! I’ve been 400 pounds in my life, when I had the belt lipectomy they didn’t take any skin in a vertical direction, only horizontal, so there should be plenty of space there. I couldn’t have gained THAT much! I’m certainly not getting any taller!

I told my husband about the situation, and he said, quietly and meekly (because he knows what a minefield this topic can be for everyone), “You look the same to me, I don’t think you’ve gained a bunch of weight, sweetie.” And then he said even more quietly, “Maybe all those twisting, stretching core workouts you do are causing them, maybe you need more room for all of the badass ab moves you are doing?”

There was nothing for it but to get on the scale this morning. I braced myself for the worst, but I did not find that the worst had happened. I weigh exactly what I always do when I am not starving myself or otherwise trying to lose weight to attain the mystical goal weight in my brain. I weigh the normal, maintenance, enjoying-my-life-while-still-being-careful weight I always revert to between diet programs. The weight I should probably just get used to and accept. That weight.

So what the hell, body?

The only thing I can guess is it’s a combination of what my brilliant husband said, and my aging skin. It’s been drier than usual lately, noticeably so. And I do really work my core with my workouts – many of them incorporate Pilates and yoga moves that twist, stretch, and otherwise pull at my midsection. That’s the best I can guess. Pass the cocoa butter, please?

Summer Maintaining Update

I’ve been maintaining since early July, that was when I stopped going to HMR Phase 2 classes (I’d bought a series of 12 for a skills tune-up), and things are going really well. I’ve gone back to my old system where I don’t weigh myself every day because it messes with my head, and instead I focus on doing the things I know I need to do, which are:

Feelin' fly on Saturday night!

Feelin’ fly on Saturday night!

  • Exercise for about an hour, 5-6 days a week.
  • Eat in a maintenance mode pattern every day/as much as humanly possible.
  • Allow occasional indulgences and enjoy them.

So far it’s working very well. Bullet point 2 above is really the key – I eat a very predictable pattern of foods which is easy for me to fall back upon just about every day. If I indulge myself some evening at a party or restaurant, I’m back on track the next morning because I have an easy, repeatable pattern for food that is simpler to follow than not.

I know that I’m maintaining because my measurements haven’t changed, and my clothes still fit the same. I went out for a friend’s birthday dinner Saturday night and felt pretty damned good about myself and my body for a few hours, then realized that those moments are becoming more of the norm than the exception. If what I’m doing is causing me to finally find some body love and quiet the berating voices in my head, I call that success.

I’ve spent the summer in an unsettled state regarding my job, but clarity is coming soon and I should have that settled within the next few days. That will be a relief and potentially a whole new set of challenges and pressure in my life. But in a good way.

Meds and Weight Gain: Thought Experiment (Hopefully)

Hey guys! I didn’t post results last week because I’m maintaining now. In the future. Forever. Henceforth posting “Yep, staying the same!” every week is probably off.

That being said….something has come up to disrupt my flow. Sort of.

As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, I suffer from chronic migraines, have since I was in my early 20s. I’ve tried dozens of preventative regimens, I know my triggers, I have an army of pharmaceutical soldiers for when they strike, and yet still they plague me. Recently I met with my doctor yet again about on-going skirmishes in this battle and she recommended we try a new/different preventative medication, which my neurologist could prescribe.

To say I was hesitant is an understatement. All of the other things I’ve tried I had to discontinue due to being a special snowflake side effects that made continuing either dangerous or very uncomfortable, ranging from “blacking out in the bathroom for 2-3 minutes and scaring the hell out of my husband with concomitant ambulance trip and ER visit” to “suicidal ideation” to “weird bone and joint pain.”

But. That tantalizing possibility of less pain hanging around out there makes me willing to try…just…one…more…time. So I’m crossing my fingers and hoping we only have to keep trying these drugs with off-label migraine uses until they come up with something specifically for migraines, and my hopes and fears are currently fixated on the CGRP drugs currently in human testing, making them a year or two away from being approved. But until then…

I started the new drug on Friday last week. So far I haven’t had any real problems, no depression, passing out, weird pains – so far so good. One weird thing though, that may or may not be related, is that my weight shot up about 4 pounds since I started and nothing else in my diet or exercise program has changed. That’s a thing I pay attention to. So far we’re still in “swing range” for my body, but since I weigh every day I know that to go up, up, up without any down motion over a 5 day period is not normal for my body.

That’s where the thought experiment comes in. What if weight gain is a side effect for me on this drug? So far it’s only a few pounds, but what if it continues? Obviously I can’t tell yet whether it is preventing migraines because I’ve only been on it for 5 days so far, but let’s say for the purpose of argument that it DOES work and suddenly I no longer have to get 1-3 migraines a week.

For that, yes, absolutely, 4 pounds, no problem here. Happy to trade it.

But what if this is only the beginning? How would I feel if it was 10 or 20 pounds, or, god forbid, 30 or more? What’s the cutoff to the amount I’m willing to accept for an absence of that chronic, debilitating pain? At what point do I shut it down and go back to regular migraines, and declare this yet another loser to side effect bingo?

I have to take into account how central weight management has been to me and how hard I’ve worked for it the last 13 years. Am I willing to trade all that for a reduction in agony? How much of a mental hurdle will that be for me, to know that for as long as I want to experience a pain-free existence, I’d have to maintain a weight that makes me unhappy.

I don’t have any of the answers yet, and a lot of it will depend on 1) how well this drug works vs 2) how much weight we’re talking about here. But it’s probably something I should figure out, if the results I’m seeing on my scale are going to continue in an upwards trajectory.